Canis Major


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picture of book cover ISBN: 0-9659483-9-0

When the hero Orion is slain by a scorpion sent by the god Apollo, his two hunting dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, are given the honor of shining beside him as constellations during the night, and living among the Olympians during the day. These immortal hounds have many adventures, including the foundation of their own temple, (with their own priest, Dogma, and their own poet, Doggerel) as well as various escapades involving the gods and goddesses of Olympus, Chiron the centaur, and even the ghost of a mortal named Socrates.

Chapter One of Canis Major

Nova Sidera

In ancient times when Zeus and his kin dwelt as gods on Mount Olympus, there was an old beekeeper named Hyrieus. He lived in a distant part of the countryside, a land of few farms and many woods, not far from the sea. There he kept many great hives of bees which he tended regularly and which gave him a steady living from the honey which he would sell to the sea captains for trade.

One summer evening, as he was finishing his meal of fish, corn, and wine, two strangers knocked at the door of his house. Hyrieus rose to answer it himself, for his house was a humble one, and he had lived all alone since his wife had died many years earlier. The two strangers asked if they could spend the night as they were from a far land and were traveling to the sea, which lay only a half day’s walk away.

Hyrieus wondered briefly if they were robbers, meaning to beat or kill him, but then his natural generosity got the better of him and he invited them in, and throwing some more fish and corn on the fire, and opening up another skin of wine, soon had them eating at his table, tasting his honey, and telling stories long into the night. They told many interesting stories he had never heard before, of the journeys of the great flocks of birds across the lands from season to season, of the secret language of dolphins swimming in the sea, and even of the dances of the bees, though he was familiar with all but two of these. Still, he wondered at their knowledge and the thought came to him that they might be more than they seemed.

In turn, they asked him of his own life, and he told them a little about himself and his life on the farm.

“It’s a good life, nearly perfect. My only regret is that my wife died many years ago before we had any children. I’ve lived alone here ever since.”

The strangers looked at each other meaningfully and nodded.  

“And you might wish to have a child, even now?” asked the taller of the two. He was broad-shouldered and somewhat fierce looking. Hyrieus wondered if he might have once been a soldier or wrestler.

Hyrieus smiled shyly. “I should indeed, though it would never come to pass, as I had once hoped, that my children should remind me of my wife, and have something of her in their eyes.”

The strangers looked at each other again and nodded.

“Listen carefully,” said the stranger. “Take that bull which I saw in your field tonight and sacrifice it to Poseidon. Then take it and bury it next to your wife’s grave. She’s buried here; isn’t she?”

Hyrieus nodded.

“Pour some of your best wine on your wife’s grave,” continued the younger of the two. “In nine months you will have your child.”

Hyrieus said nothing, but bowed his head. He knew that the strangers were from Olympus and that for some reason they had deigned to do him a favor. When he looked up, they were gone.

And though the weather had been clear just a short time ago, a great wind came up, thunder boomed, and lightning sparkled across the nighttime summer sky. Then he knew that the tall stranger had been Zeus and that the younger one had been Hermes.

The two gods walked through the countryside, first along the road, then above the treetops, and then amidst the clouds as they neared Olympus.

“The honey was very good,” Hermes remarked.

“Yes,” Zeus agreed. “I’m glad that Demeter mentioned it. I haven’t visited this part of the countryside in years.” He whistled as they rose.

“It was very magnanimous, granting him a child,” Hermes ventured.

“It’s nice to be nice,” Zeus replied. “Though you spoiled the effect a bit by having him sacrifice the bull to Poseidon. It might have been more appropriate if the bull was to be sacrificed to me.”

“I suppose so,” Hermes replied. “But I’m having lunch with Poseidon tomorrow, so I thought it would be a nice sort of gift.”

Zeus sighed. “Oh well. It will make the beekeeper happy.”

Now Hermes sighed. There were always consequences when Zeus was in a happy mood and did something on a whim. But there was no point in arguing with him about it now. They traveled the rest of the way to Olympus in silence.

When Hyrieus awoke the next morning the whole incident seemed like a dream, and he thought it more than likely that it had been, brought on perhaps by a little too much wine and an old man’s sad dreams. Nonetheless, he sacrificed the bull to Poseidon, even though the bull was worth much, and he buried it next to his wife’s grave and poured some of his best wine on it. And then he put the matter out of his mind for some time, though he did note the passing of months.

And nine months later, he heard a cry one moonlit night in the early part of spring, and walking to the grave, he found a baby boy, healthy and crying. Hyrieus looked at the baby’s eyes in the moonlight, and found that his own were wet, for the baby’s reminded him of his wife Euryale, gone these many years.

He named the boy Orion, and in later years he became the greatest hunter who had ever lived. As a boy he liked to roam the woods near his father’s farm, where he observed the ways of the deer and other animals which lived within. He learned to walk silently and lithely and while still young, he was given a great hunting bow from an older hunter who lived not far away.

With it, he would stalk through the forest, often just tracking the beasts and not attempting to catch them. Having at least somewhat of the divine blood of Olympus involved in his birth, he found that he could understand much of the languages of the forest animals. When an owl or a wolf would call out a warning that Orion the hunter was at large in the forest, he could understand it clearly and perceive where the various animals were taking flight and refuge amidst the trees and undergrowth.

Clad in the skins of foxes and badgers, Orion learned to walk unseen, not only by the creatures of the woods, but also by his fellow men. There were few of these in that part of the countryside at that time, but stories arose among them of Hyrieus’s son walking with the night wind. And from time to time, he was seen, retrieving arrows from the body of a bird, or cutting up the body of a stag, carefully skinning it, and bringing the wrapped parts home to his father’s house, where there would be feasting for their few neighbors.

One day when he saw a bear breaking into one of his father’s great beehives, he took a spear and in one throw impaled the bear. In gratitude, the bees flocked to him, though they did not sting him, and told him many secrets of the woods and countryside and the animals that dwelt there.

Soon Orion could be seen wandering with a club and a spear, a bow and arrow, and later with a jeweled sword, in pursuit of wolves, bears, and other creatures. At first he hunted alone, but after a time he found that dogs were a great help, scenting a bear’s spoor even before his own keen nose could. He hunted with many dogs, but in time he came to favor two, whom he simply called Canis Major, or big dog, and Canis Minor, the little dog.

Canis Major had nothing of the wolf about him, as many hunting dogs do, nor did he have the thin shape and great loping stride that many fast dogs have. Instead, he was average sized, and a bit shaggier than the average canine, with a beautiful golden fur. His advantage as a hunting dog lay in his keen nose, his patience, and a sunny disposition. Canis Minor, on the other hand, was short, (though very fast,) and highly intelligent. In later days there were those who said that Orion’s great success as a hunter should be attributed at least somewhat to Canis Minor’s discerning mind.

There was great love between Hyrieus and Orion, perhaps the stronger as the young man spent his days, and many a night, amidst the woods, before returning at last to the farm where his father looked after the beehives and a few other animals. Hyrieus often told Orion of the visit of the two strangers and the mystery of his birth, and if Orion wondered from time to time about Euryale, the mother whom he had never seen, his mind turned even more to the question of the two strangers and why they had favored an aged beekeeper.

In time Hyrieus passed away, and Orion, unwilling to settle down to life on the farm, or the life of a beekeeper, left it, selling it for a small sum to a neighbor.

In addition to being a great hunter, Orion was very good looking. As is usually the case, this caused problems. After selling the farm, he traveled from island to island, taking passage with the many small boats of fishermen or traders who traveled the Greek seas in those days. His reputation as a hunter preceded him, and in time men came to him to hunt and kill bothersome animals, whether lions or wolves, or other creatures who endangered the lives of men or their livestock.

Such was the case when Orion landed on the Isle of Chios. An envoy of the King of the island appeared at the dock shortly after Orion’s ship had landed, and upon learning that the great hunter was aboard, bade him to the King’s palace, where Orion, accompanied as he always was now, by Canis Major and Canis Minor, followed.

There he was feasted by the King long into the night. There were jugglers and dancers for entertainment, but Orion only had eyes for the King’s daughter, the beautiful Princess of Chios. When the king finally made his request that Orion rid the island of the lions, wolves, and boars that had been troubling it for some time, he agreed, provided that the King give him his daughter in marriage. The King was loathe to do this, but publicly he agreed to it, although in his heart he vowed that he would not honor the agreement should Orion actually fulfill it.

Canis Major and Canis Minor had spent the night in the palace kennels, with nothing better than an old chicken carcass each, and a brief fight with the King’s dogs, before settling down to the a night’s sleep as only a dog can.

They had agreed to nothing, but the next day they found themselves in front of Orion in the woods above the King’s palace tracking the scent of a lion. It was hard dangerous work, which required a special agility in finding the beast they were tracking, bringing Orion within striking distance, and then getting out of harm’s way while Orion killed the beast.

After several grueling weeks, they had hunted down and killed every large beast on the Isle of Chios. Orion returned to the King’s palace with the last of the dozens of skins he had collected and placed them at the foot of the King’s throne, asking for the hand of the Princess in marriage.

The King, with no intention of complying, ordered food and drink brought for the hunter, and told him that there would a festival called in three day’s time, and at the end of it he would wed the Princess of Chios.

As the King had no such intention, he had more food and yet more drink brought to Orion. Orion, who was unaccustomed to strong drink, fell into a stupor. The King had servants carry him to the guest chambers where he had been sleeping. And there, an hour later, a band of satyrs, under the King’s instructions, came and put out the eyes of Orion.

Orion’s cries of pain resounded throughout the palace, and Canis Major and Canis Minor immediately bounded out of the kennels and into the palace, where they soon found their master, holding his hands over his bloodied and empty eye sockets. The dogs saw immediately what had happened, and yet they and their master also perceived that for all the foulness of the King’s betrayal, he had not had Orion slain.

The dogs led Orion away from the palace, and they were not hindered by the King’s men or the satyrs. Canis Minor looked back once to see the Princess weeping and calling out to them, but he ignored her, his only thought to get his master off the island and away from the King of Chios.

They came to the harbor and asked for passage aboard a ship leaving the island, but the mariners were afraid of the King’s displeasure and refused, making excuses. Finally, Orion, invoking the name of Poseidon, got a merchant to sell them a small boat.

With Canis Major and Canis Minor to see for Orion, the three set sail from the harbor away from the land of Chios.

Orion had no plan as to where to go, his life as a hunter now lost with his eyes, but Canis Minor had heard Hyrieus tell the story of Orion’s birth, and knew that there would be help for him among the great ones of Olympus. While it crossed his mind to offer a prayer to Poseidon, he didn’t know how and was doubtful anyway whether it would be wise.

 In their travels he had also heard of the Isle of Lemnos, where Hephaestus himself, one of the gods of Olympus, had his forge in the island’s volcano, and where he was said to work with a number of cyclops alongside him.

Canis Minor knew that Lemnos lay somewhere to the north of them, and after a day or so of aimless sailing, his keen ears, along with those of Canis Major could detect the steady hammer blows which legend said emanated from Hephaestus’ forge on the island.

In a short time they were there, and it was not long afterwards before the blind hunter and his two faithful companions were led by a cyclops, his single eye grim and unblinking, down a twisting stairway carved straight out of the mountain's side, Orion bent over and guided by the dogs, with sweat streaming down his face as the temperature grew hotter and hotter as they traveled down into the mountainside.

At last they came to the forge, the liquid fire flowing toward the back of the cavern, and Hephaestus himself wielding hammer and tongs, laboring over an anvil. Orion spoke for himself, it being decided among them that although Hephaestus was known as one of the kindest of the Olympians, it were nevertheless better for the victim to speak for himself rather than for one of the dogs to speak up. Orion spoke of the two mysterious visitors to his father Hyrieus, the offering of the bull to Poseidon, and his own birth nine months later. He passed briefly over his adventures in the intervening years and told straightaway of his blinding at the hand of the King of Chios.

Hephaestus listened attentively, and then told them of an island in the east, where Helios, the sun, rested every morning and visited with his sister Eos, the dawn, before rising up into the sky with his fiery chariot to bring warmth and light to the world for another day. A touch of his hands could heal Orion’s sight and bring his eyes back into the empty sockets. He ordered a young cyclops, Cedalion, to sail with them to the palace of Dawn in the East.

Canis Major was on the verge of asking if there wasn’t someone closer who could do it, but Canis Minor, knowing his thought, gave him a dirty look and he held his peace. As they were to discover later, it never pays to question the generosity of one of the Olympians.

Cedalion sailed with them a week and a day to the Palace of the Dawn in the East, and it was as merry a journey as could be with a blind hunter, two dogs, and a cyclops. There were dolphins leaping about the bow of their small ship every day, and the weather held good, the breezes getting warmer and gentler as they headed further east.

The Palace of the East was as beautiful as Hephaestus’ forge of Lemnos had been grim. There were nymphs to lead them inside and prepare baths to wash the sea salt off them. Eos herself met them soon afterwards, and Orion, who could not see her, nevertheless could sense her beauty. Canis Major and Canis Minor, being dogs, were not impressed, but held their tongues anyway.

There was a feast that night, somewhat like the feast in Chios many weeks earlier, but this time with the unearthly beauty of the nymphs and neriads dancing. Orion sat sightless, pounding his fist in time to the music. Canis Major and Canis Minor, who were at the feast this time, listened to the music somewhat in passing, though most of their attention was taken with the trays of steaming meats that were set before them. At one point they looked up to notice that Orion and Eos had left the feast. Canis Major was about to ask for him, but Canis Minor told him to hold his tongue.

The next morning, Eos appeared before her brother, Helios, and begged him to restore the sight of Orion the hunter. Helios scowled at his sister’s solicitations for the mortal, but nevertheless did as she requested, and Orion could see once again.

They were several days on the island before leaving. Helios scowled every time he saw his sister walking hand in hand with the mortal and the dogs soon tired of chasing waves on the beach. Cedalion was given a small boat and set sail on his own for Lemnos with many hearty thanks given all around.

Time passed until Canis Minor could bear it no longer. He took Orion aside one day and spoke to him about guests overstaying their welcome, especially among immortal hosts and about the dark looks across Helios’ face every time he saw Orion.

Orion saw the wisdom in it, and the next day they were sailing away, though not without a tearful scene on the beach with Eos. It was back to their old life for a time after that. Orion returned to Chios intending to take vengeance on the King, but he had fled at the rumor of Orion’s coming, and the Princess was gone too.

There was nothing to do but move on, which Orion did, hunting across many islands, until one day he came to Crete. There, one moonlit night, hunting on the far side of the island, far from the palace of King Minos, he and the dogs came across the goddess Artemis.

Actually, it was Canis Major who found her first, all because he had the scent of a wild goat, and was following it through the woods, Canis Minor and Orion chasing behind him. There was a strange silence as he ran through the forest, and then there in a clearing in front of him, the goat transfixed with an arrow and lying dead at her feet, was the goddess. Canis Minor and Orion stumbled up behind him, almost tripping over him, and there the four of them stood, staring at each other.

Orion bowed to the goddess. She laughed and threw the goat at Canis Major.

This was the beginning of the friendship of Artemis and Orion. Artemis had sworn never to take a husband or to give herself over to beauty and men's attention the way her half-sister Aphrodite did. But she liked Orion. She liked the way he looked. She liked the way he hunted. She even liked Canis Major and Canis Minor. The dogs liked her.

Soon the man and the goddess, along with the two dogs were hunting regularly together. Artemis preferred to hunt by moonlight, and Orion and the dogs soon found that they enjoyed hunting under the stars.

One day, after several weeks of meeting Orion for hunting, Artemis was supping in the halls of Olympus with the other Olympians. She, Zeus, Apollo, Hephaestus, and Hermes were sitting on their thrones in the Great Hall after the evening meal.

“So you’ve got a new hunting companion?” Zeus asked casually.

“Yes, a mortal named Orion. He’s probably the greatest hunter of this age.”

“He’s the blind one who came to me, is he not?” Hephaestus asked.

“Yes, he told me about that,” she answered. She then related to the others the tale of Orion’s blinding and healing, as he had told it to her.

“That’s not the beekeeper’s son, is it?” Hermes asked.

“Yes,” Artemis replied, Orion had mentioned that his father had been a beekeeper.

Hermes then told the story of the night he and Zeus and been entertained by Hyrieus the beekeeper, and how they had repaid his hospitality.

“Do we have to talk about mortals after dinner?” Apollo asked. “I find them tiresome, and I find this particular hunter particularly tiresome.”

“There’s no need to get excited,” Artemis responded. She was slightly flushed. “But I like to hunt, and he’s a good hunter. You like to sing, and I’ve heard you talking about mortals who are good singers.”

“I’m not excited,” Apollo answered, his voice rising. “But for someone who has sworn never to wed a man, you’re going on an awful lot about one of them.”

“I am not, my dear brother,” Artemis shouted back, with a special rasp on the word “brother.”

Zeus, Hermes, and Hephaestus all got up and excused themselves at this point. Artemis and Apollo rarely argued, but when they did it had a way of getting unpleasant.

“Now you’ve made a scene and they are going to talk about it for days,” Apollo hissed.

“You’re the one who’s making a scene.”

“I’m not the one sworn to perpetual maidenhood who’s going on about this wonderful hunter friend of hers . . . .”

The conversation took a turn for the worse at that point, cutlery was hurled, and the brother and sister stalked off after several choice comments about each other’s lifestyle.

The matter wasn’t helped the next day when Apollo, visiting with Helios, the sun, mentioned the matter in passing, and Helios began cursing about the hunter whose blindness he had cured, and how he had repaid the love of Eos by leaving her heartbroken.

Sometimes the gods supped together on Olympus, and at other times they didn’t. That night Apollo noticed that Artemis was not at her usual place. He himself ate less than usual and he left abruptly before dessert, which was quite unlike his usual habit.

That night, Canis Major and Canis Minor hunted with Orion and Artemis on the highlands of Crete. They were chasing a stag and the dogs got separated from the hunter and the goddess.

“There’s something back there,” Canis Minor whispered to Canis Major.

Canis Major barked and turned back in the direction Canis Major had indicated.

“Stop, you idiot,” the little dog hissed. “It’s not the stag.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know.” There was nothing to be seen.

“It was bright and it was scary,” Canis Minor continued.

Canis Major gave his companion an odd look. The little dog had hunted bears, boar, wolves, and other, stranger creatures. He had never complained of fear before.

They didn’t see anything strange later that night, but they didn’t catch the stag either.

The glimpse Canis Minor had gotten, had in fact, been of Apollo, who wanted to see what his sister was up to with Orion. All he had seen was an unsuccessful night’s hunt of a stag, but the way Artemis talked to Orion, the way she giggled and put her hand on his arm, the way she blushed when he talked, and the way they looked at each other, all helped him to make up his mind.

Apollo made up his mind that Orion was an inappropriate companion for Artemis, and thus he should die. He thought of various ways to kill the hunter, whether to do it himself or have someone else do it, and whether to be open about it or try to pretend that it was an accident. In the end he decided that he wouldn’t do it himself, and thus save himself at least some of the blame that was sure to follow, but he would be very open and admit that he had ordered the death, and get at least some credit for being an honest fellow.

Quite pleased with himself, he slept soundly the rest of the night, and then sought out a giant scorpion the next day. He told the scorpion where Orion would be hunting that night and all the other details he might need to come upon him unaware and sting him to death.

Apollo then went on his way, whistling, the scorpion headed off to kill Orion that night, and Hermes, who had overheard the whole exchange while out and about his business, went to Artemis to tell her what her brother was up to.

Artemis was not in her usual groves, nor had she intended to hunt with Orion and the dogs that night. Hermes was long in finding her, forced to ask various nymphs in various forests where their mistress might be found.

When at last he found her, it was late in the day and the sun was sinking towards the horizon. Hermes told her all that he had heard between Apollo and the scorpion. Artemis cried out in anger and in anguish when she heard and demanded that Hermes tell the other Olympians. She then left in haste towards Crete to save the hunter. But she was too late.

Orion, the great hunter lay dead, stung to death after a long battle with the scorpion. Canis Major and Canis Minor lay panting and exhausted some distance away. They had attempted to protect their master, but the giant monster had merely picked them up and thrown them aside. The gods and goddesses of Olympus gathered around.  Artemis looked down on the body of Orion with tears in her eyes.  She would never hunt with a mortal again, and she would rarely laugh again with the same easy joy as she had in the past.

“Even now his ghost is walking the lands of the dead,” she said.  “But I wish his memory to live on, so I will place his body in the sky, as a new constellation, so that his memory will live forever.”

“I think that would be very touching,” said Zeus.

“I agree; it would be a beautiful gesture,” said Apollo.

Artemis gave him a dark look.  She had caught a glimpse of the scorpion which her brother had sent to kill Orion.

“What about those two dogs over there,” Apollo said in an irritated voice.  He didn’t like dogs.  He pointed towards the pair who now stood next to the body of their master.

“They were his friends and companions in the hunt,” Artemis replied.

“Well, they don’t have to look so droopy-eared and sad,” Apollo grumbled.   

“You just killed their best friend and master,” Artemis said.  “They have a right to be sad.”

“Well, they’re getting on my nerves,” said Apollo.  “I’m going to kill them.”

“No, you really don’t need to do that,” the smaller of the two dogs called out in gruff voice.  We’ll be on our way in just a minute.”

Apollo looked at him crossly.  “When I say I’m going to kill someone, I do it. I don’t care if he intends to move on in just a minute or not.”

The two dogs looked at Artemis in a pleading sort of way.

“I don’t really think you need to kill them,” she said to Apollo.

“We can’t just leave them here.”

“I suppose I could place them in the sky, as constellations, next to their master,” Artemis said.

“I like that,” Zeus replied.  “It’s really rather touching.”

“Place us in the sky?” the larger dog asked.

“Yes,” Artemis explained.  “Your bodies will be constellations of stars in the nighttime sky and will shine down on the mortal world forever and ever.”

The dogs looked at each other.

“I wouldn’t want to seem ungracious,” the smaller dog began.  “But would we still be alive if we were constellations?”

“You would live on forever, shining eternally in the nighttime sky,” said Zeus.  “It’s really rather touching if you think about it.”

“Yes, but would we still be able to think?” asked Canis Minor, the small dog.

“Would we be able to eat?” asked Canis Major, the larger dog.  “And be able to chase rabbits?”

“I don’t know,” Zeus replied.  “None of the other constellations has ever asked before. That's really a very interesting question.”

The two dogs looked at each other.

“How about a compromise?” Canis Minor asked.  We could be constellations at night, but we could live with you on Mount Olympus by day?”

“That is an interesting idea,” Zeus replied. He blinked several times as if he were thinking.

“This is getting on my nerves,” Apollo barked.  “Can’t we just kill them?”

Zeus, king of the gods, gave Apollo a dark look.  “If you’re going to go around killing mortals just because you don’t like them, you’re going to have to learn to live with the consequences.  That includes living with these dogs.”

And that is how Canis Major and Canis Minor were not only placed in the nighttime sky to shine next to their master Orion at night, but how they came to live with the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus by day.

Orion and the scorpion
But that is only the beginning...
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